Bieganski in American Cinema

Chapter Four of Bieganski: The Brute Polak Stereotype in
Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture.

A Streetcar Named Desire • The Deer Hunter • The Fugitive • The Apartment

by Danusha Goska

In the mid-nineteen nineties, Indiana University and its surrounding community of Bloomington described themselves as oases of progressive thought and action. The University sponsored internationally recognized scholarship, for example at the Kinsey Institute. Lawn signs announced participation in “Bloomington United” a citywide celebration of diversity. WFIU, IU’s National Public Radio affiliate, was famous for its witty fundraising campaigns. One skit dramatized a takeover of WFIU by a buffoonish Polish man, who eliminated WFIU’s cultural and intellectual programming to broadcast nothing but polka. Listeners were exhorted to pledge money in order to protect WFIU from this fate. Station managers reported that this oft-repeated skit had been used for years, had never raised any protest, and that they saw no reason to remove it.

In the early twentieth century, Bohunks ceased being the peasants that they had been in the Old Country; they rapidly became America’s representational proletarians (Gladsky p. 86). Rooted in elites’ responses to peasants, the Bieganski stereotype came to be generated from elites’ responses to proletarians. “Polishness is not culture, it’s class” (107). Working class Polish Americans are associated with “a deteriorating urban America” (106). In 1938, Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet William Carlos Williams offered a succinct summary of how the Pole and the Jew are often seen by Americans, to whom they had become stock characters in the American ethnic drama. The Pole is the epitome of the working class – the Pole will “do for the whole bunch” of working class people; the Jew is a tricky merchant. This vignette dates from the Great Depression.

All the streets of the Dundee section of Passaic [New Jersey] have men idling in them this summer. Polacks, mostly, walking around – collars open, skinny, pot bellied – or sitting on the steps and porches of the old time wooden houses, looking out of place, fathers of families with their women folk around them … [there were also] Jews, of course, trying to undersell somebody or else each other and so out of the picture. But the Polacks look stunned, mixed up, don’t know what it’s all about. Not even enough coin to get drunk on. They’ll do for the whole bunch. (Williams 5).

Polish-Americans face a special burden. Oklahoma-born poet Lloyd Van Brunt describes it:

Unlike blacks and other racial minorities, poor and mostly rural whites have few defenders, no articulated cause … And they have been made to feel deeply ashamed of themselves — as I was. This shame, this feeling of worthlessness, is one of the vilest and most self-destructive emotions to be endured. To be poor in a country that places a premium on wealth is in itself shameful. To be white and poor is unforgivable … That’s why I call them the Polish-joke class, the one group everybody feels free to belittle, knowing that no politically correct boundaries will be violated … trying to hide some shameful secret, some deep and unreachable sense of worthlessness … is the legacy of America’s poor whites. (Van Brunt)

Folklorist Alan Dundes concurs. “Lower-class whites are not militant and do not constitute a threat to middle-class white America … with the Polack [joke] cycle, it is the lower class, not Negroes, which provides the outlet for aggression and means of feeling superior” (Dundes “Study” 202).

Persons too sophisticated ever to tell a Polak joke may still sup on the Bieganski stereotype. Hollywood filmmakers, who stake millions of dollars on their every aesthetic choice, exploit Bieganski. This chapter will refer to four films: A Streetcar Named Desire, The Apartment, The Deer Hunter, and The Fugitive. These films were chosen because three of the four (save The Fugitive) are unusual among films of very high financial, popular, and aesthetic impact in that they focus on Bohunk characters. The Fugitive exemplifies brief deployments of the Bieganski stereotype in a high-impact film that features, but does not focus on, Polish characters. All four films appeared on the American Film Institute’s list of the greatest four hundred films of all time; save The Fugitive, the films also appeared on the AFI’s list of the greatest one hundred films of all time. These films represent four decades and four important Hollywood genres. Marlon Brando’s performance in Streetcar is emblematic of The Method. The Apartment is a product of one of the “Jews who invented Hollywood,” (Gabler) and typical of the kind of highly intelligent, and yet still romantic, comedies of Billy Wilder and his mentor, Ernst Lubitsch. Deer Hunter’s director, Michael Cimino, represents the wunderkinds of the auteur-theory influenced New Hollywood of the 1970s. The Fugitive is that rare critical success among the highly lucrative, action-adventure “summer movies” that have dominated Hollywood since 1975’s Jaws. The variety of genres in which the Bieganski stereotype has been deployed testifies to its viability.

Though the most recent film is 1993’s The Fugitive, filmmakers’ play of the Bieganski card is not a thing of the past. In 2001, Enigma treated the Nazi code of that name. Poles pioneered efforts to break Enigma; those efforts were not dramatized in the film; rather, a Pole appears as chief villain, contrary to historical fact. In 2002, the critically acclaimed Monster’s Ball chose to depict white supremacy in the American South as generated by Polish Americans. In 2003, the box-office-smash, Jim Carrey comedy Bruce Almighty opened with a scene mocking oafish Polish bakers and their rat-feces-studded “chocolate chip” cookies.

2003’s Under the Tuscan Sun was based on the Frances Mayes bestseller of the same title. Diane Lane stars as Frances, whose ex-husband marries a younger woman who is pregnant with his child. Frances leaves her home in America and travels to Tuscany. In Tuscany, three men appear on the scene. Since this movie is all about a search for a man who can redeem wounded Frances, the viewer inspects these three new arrivals with interest. Will any of them serve as an apt swain for our Frances? Indeed they will not. They are Poles. The Polish laborers here serve the same role as the one Polish laborer served in the 1991 British film, Truly, Madly, Deeply. In that film, Nina (Juliet Stevenson) is trying to cope emotionally after her husband dies. Like Tuscan‘s Frances, Nina has a Polish laborer in her house. Titus (Christopher Rozycki) is a buffoon who falls in love with Nina, who, the film makes clear, would never slum so low as to flirt with a Pole. Titus declares eternal love for Nina, and then, behind her back, takes up with one of Nina’s students.

The three Polish stooges – that is, laborers – in Under the Tuscan Sun are Pawel (Pawel Szajda), who is young, lovely, blond, and more passionate than intelligent, Zbigniew (Sasa Vulicevic), who is unkempt, fawns unattractively over the heroine, and is afflicted by constant, unexplained twitching, and Jerzy (Valentine Pelka), who is small, morose, and clumsy.
Pawel knocks himself in the head with a flag during an attempt to impress his Italian girlfriend. Jerzy handles household wiring explosively. The film never allows Jerzy to speak; it is Pawel who informs Frances of Jerzy’s literature PhD. Frances is a writer; she shows Jerzy her copy of Czeslaw Milosz’s poetry. She’s looking for a man … Jerzy is in her house everyday … he’s a literature professor … he’s also far from home … like Frances, he’s been insulted by life circumstance. Forget it. Frances does find a lover, but he is not Polish.

Spiderman II was the second most profitable film of 2004 and one of the most profitable films of all time. Like The Fugitive, Spiderman II makes a brief, and telling, play of the Bieganski card. Spiderman’s landlord, Mr. Ditkovich (a name that sounds like the obscene American insult, “dick”), shoves in front of Spiderman as he is waiting to enter the shared bathroom. He makes absurd statements like, “I have ears like a cat and eyes like a rodent.” His daughter is beautiful but deformed – she has a growth of some kind on her face. Even superheroes are tormented by Bieganski.

The 2006 film The Break-Up received a great deal of attention because it starred Jennifer Aniston, whose life was a frequent subject of tabloid headlines. It ranked among the top twenty moneymaking films of the year worldwide. Aniston’s character breaks up with Gary Grobowski (Vince Vaughn). Grobowski wears a Polish flag and Polish eagle t-shirt. He threatens a man leading a gay men’s chorus. The gay man, much smaller than Grobowski, with some elegant karate moves, easily beats up Grobowski. Intelligence and style trump the brutal Pole. Later, as Gary holds tissues to his bleeding nose, he explains to his girlfriend that he intends to bring in some really tough guys to beat up the gay singer, including “Polaks who have no future.” In another scene, Gary is shown in a t-shirt reading, “Proud to be Polish.” He is watching a violent video game on TV. Later, Gary is at his workplace, a dingy office; a Polish flag hangs on wood-paneled walls. He works with two brothers. One is a sex pervert; the other is a worrywart. The worrywart pulls a large rag out of his pocket and attempts to clean his ear during a serious conversation.

A 2008 film, director and star Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino, violated previous norms. Walt Kowalski (Eastwood) is a quintessential working class, Catholic, Polish-American. He lives in Detroit. He is a retired auto worker and a decorated combat veteran. He mows his own lawn. He drinks beer, owns guns, and his garage is fully stocked with graduated wrenches and other tools. He curses and uses politically incorrect ethnic slurs. He is, at heart, a good man. That the film needed its character who uses ethnic slurs to be Polish is standard. That a Hollywood film would treat that character with respect and affection is not. This aspect of the film was controversial. In spite of early Oscar buzz, the film was shut out of Oscar consideration. It was an audience favorite, though, earning over a hundred million dollars at the domestic box office, a remarkable sum for a small movie with a largely amateur cast.


A Streetcar Named Desire

A Streetcar Named Desire is the 1951 movie version of Tennessee Williams’ highly successful play. The play won most of the awards it qualified for; the film received a hefty twelve Academy Award nominations. The New York Film Critics and The New York Times named it the Best Picture of the year. Bosley Crowther, in an atypically gushy review for The Times, wrote, “… comments cannot do justice to the substance and the artistry of this film. You must see it to appreciate it. And that we strongly urge you to do” (Crowther). Many obeyed; the film was a financial as well as critical success. Since then the play, film, and Marlon Brando’s Stanley Kowalski have not lost esteem, but gained mythic stature; each is regarded as a watershed in its field (Manso 219-235; 303-304). Playwright Dennis Reardon has called Streetcar the great American play (Kolin 2). Anthony Quinn, in language appropriate to its referent, said, “The character of Stanley fucked them all … turned the whole world around … Everybody started behaving like Brando” (Manso 304).

In the opening scenes of the film, Blanche du Bois (Vivien Leigh) arrives in New Orleans for a visit to her sister, Stella. The dramatic tension in the film springs from the confrontation between Blanche du Bois, faded Southern Belle, and her brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski, crude and brutal Polak. As Crowther put it in his review, the film captures ” … an essentially human conflict … the last brave, defiant, hopeless struggle of … Blanche du Bois to hold on to her faded gentility against the heartless badgering of her roughneck … lowborn brother-in-law” (Crowther). Stella is “thrilled” by Stanley’s brutality; Stanley himself is aware of how his wife prizes his animal nature: “You thought I was common. How right you was, baby. I was common as dirt … I pulled you down off them columns and how you loved it.” The climax of the film is Stanley’s betrayal of Blanche’s checkered past to Mitch, her suitor, and Stanley’s rape of Blanche, after which she, broken, is packed off to an insane asylum.

Stanley is spectacularly offensive. He wears a sweat-stained T-shirt and scratches at his nipple; he strips in front of a strange woman; he drinks whiskey from a bottle; smacks his wife on the rump in front of his friends – all this while he is in a good mood. Angered – and it is usually Blanche’s efforts to “make enchantment” that anger him – he throws a radio out the window, exposes Blanche in her underwear to a crowd of friends, beats his pregnant wife, cries, repents, carries her lust-prostrate form on his naked back to bed for a taste of animal magnetism so compelling that Stella can’t stay away, no matter what he does to her or her sister. Stanley’s semi-human state extends to his family; he has a cousin “who could open a bottle of beer with his teeth. He was a human bottle opener. That was all he could do.” Stanley is similarly limited. In spite of his ability to enslave women sexually, it would be hard to argue that Stanley has any positive characteristics. In his calculated and flimsily motivated destruction of Blanche, he betrays a theatrical maliciousness comparable to that of Shakespeare’s Iago. As Stella puts it, “Stanley’s always smashed things.”

The artistic power of Williams’ and Brando’s Kowalski is rooted in their exploitation of the Bieganski stereotype. That exploitation begins with the character’s name. Stanley is a common Polish given name, Stanislaw being Poland’s patron saint. “Kowalski,” from “blacksmith,” is comparable to the English “Smith.” That Stanley’s Polishness is not incidental to, but explanatory of, his brutality and his opposition to decency and refinement, is made clear within the first few moments of the movie, and the first few lines of dialogue, and several times thereafter. In the opening scenes, Blanche takes exception to sleeping in a room with only a curtain, not a door, for privacy. “Will it be decent?” she timidly asks her sister. The situation is normal for this house, Stella assures her. “Stanley is Polish, you know.” When Stanley is shown to the viewer for the first time, he is bowling and fighting – two low prestige activities commonly associated with Poles in Polak jokes. Stanley is referred to as “Polish” or as “a Polack” several times, by Stella, Blanche, and Stanley himself. At one point of near overkill, Stanley takes exception to the epithets Blanche has been casting at him: “‘Pig-Polack-disgusting-vulgar-greasy!’ Them kind of words have been on your tongue and your sister’s too much around here!” And then, “I am not a Polack. People from Poland are Poles, not Polacks … don’t ever call me a Polack.” Shouted in Stanley’s assertive decibels, it would be impossible for anyone seeing this performance to forget that Stanley Kowalski is a Polak, and that his Polak identity is an essential ingredient of his malicious and destructive nature.

In case they do forget, Blanche, representative of sensitivity, civilization and refinement, reminds them. When reminding her sister that she, Blanche, stayed by the plantation homestead and attempted to save it from ruin, Blanche reproves her: “Where were you? In there [gestures to bedroom], with your Polack.” When explaining that she takes hot baths to soothe her overly sensitive nature, Blanche says to Stanley: “You healthy Polack, without a nerve in your body, of course you don’t know what anxiety feels like!” Blanche’s characterization of Stanley is terribly close to the stereotype used by American industrialists to justify their brutal treatment of Bohunk immigrants, and of those who opposed immigration:

He acts like an animal, has an animal’s habits! Eats like one, moves like one, talks like one! There’s even something – subhuman – something not quite to the stage of humanity yet! Yes, something ape-like about him, like one of those pictures I’ve seen in anthropological studies! Thousands and thousands of years have passed him right by, and there he is – Stanley Kowalski – survivor of the Stone Age! … Maybe we are a long way from being made in God’s image, but Stella – there has been some progress since then! Such things as art – as poetry and music – such kinds of new light have come into the world since then! In some kinds of people some tenderer feelings have had some little beginning! That we have got to make grow! And cling to, and hold as our flag! In this dark march toward whatever it is we’re approaching … Don’t – don’t hang back with the brutes!

The foul lure of Polak identity is further driven home through a musical symbol and literary allusion. Part of what cripples Blanche is her grief over the suicide of her husband, a man too sensitive to live, who “wrote poetry but wasn’t able to do anything else.” This young Apollo shot himself while Blanche was dancing to music which torments her in the form of an auditory hallucination, and which plays on the movie soundtrack during her tortured moments. The music? “The Varsouviana,” that is, citizen of Warsaw, a polka. Blanche abandoned her too sensitive husband while acting out her own inner Polak, lured by the primitive, as represented in overtly Polish music. Blanche, in explaining her name to Mitch, says that it means “white woods,” and is like “an orchard in spring,” an orchard in spring being, of course, the central symbol of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard.” The famous climax of Chekhov’s play features the Slavic son of a serf destroying an aristocrat’s beautiful cherry orchard. That Williams knew full well what he was doing is further demonstrated by his congratulatory telegram to Brando on the play’s immensely successful opening night. Williams wrote Brando that the “greasy Polack” would be Brando’s vehicle to stardom (Manso 232).

That this exploitation of a stereotype is rarely, if ever, mentioned by critics says much about popular and elite America’s unquestioning assimilation of it. In fact, one scholar recently praised Williams’ positioning of a Polak in the demographically atypical site of New Orleans; Stanley’s ethnicity well captures “parvenu aggression.” The scholar chided Williams, though, for his “shocking” under-representation of African Americans. They, after all, have “historical precedence” (Kelly 125). But of course Stanley can’t be African American. Elite America has come to allow African Americans eyes and mouths; with these, African Americans implicate greed and injustice. An audience would understand an African American Stanley’s desires as something other than unmotivated destruction. Since the Pole is denied vision and speech, and is allowed to be only what his elite viewer hates and fears, he can serve as the pure, unmotivated destruction of a Stanley Kowalski. Given that the history of the 1880-1929 Bohunk immigrants is not widely known or discussed, no conventionally educated viewer will be reminded of the exploitation of Bohunk workers, and no viewer need feel implicated by a Polish Stanley.

“Real,” critics insist; Brando’s performance was a watershed in theater and film because of its “realness” (Brodkey 78). To manufacture this “reality” elites worked hard. Brando worked out at a gym; Charles of the Ritz dyed his blond hair dark. Lucinda Ballard, costume designer, was inspired while ogling construction workers. “Their clothes were so dirty … that they stuck to their bodies. It was sweat, of course” she said, of her great discovery. “That’s the look I want … the look of animalness” (Manso 228). To create her “undesigned garb” she had to wash seven pairs of jeans for twenty-four hours, strategically rip and then paint them, dye, rip, and resew t-shirts, which were too baggy and long, and send Brando to a team of Italian tailors for special fittings (Manso 229).

If anti-immigrant racists like Madison Grant staged a play representing their ideas, they could not go wrong with Streetcar. In the racist thought predominant at the beginning of the twentieth century, the Bohunk was threatening because of his sex and his land hunger. The image of the uncultured, land-hungry, breed-animal Pole had been depicted in popular literature before this (Blejwas), but it entered the American canon with Streetcar. Blanche and Stanley wrangle over access to an American woman’s body, and possession of American earth – Belle Reve – “Beautiful Dream” – as in, American Dream. Blanche is that quintessentially American hero, the Southern Belle, whose very raison d’être was resistance against forces erosive to American civilization (Jordan 474, 475). Here she resists, physically as well as spiritually, the efforts of the parvenu Polak to get his hands on her plantation, that most sentimental piece of American real estate. The invasive manual imagery is Williams’; as huge, lowering Stanley and delicate Blanche literally wrestle over her possessions, she says, “Everyone has something they won’t let others touch,” and, “Belle Reve can finally be this bunch of papers in your big, capable hands.” Blanche could not produce children with her refined husband. She conjectures that Stanley is “not the type that goes for jasmine and perfume, but maybe he’s just what we need to mix with our blood now that we’ve lost Belle Reve.” In Williams’ play, Americans have become too soft to breed successfully. Polaks are brought in as stud stock. Thus Streetcar dramatizes the racists’ fear of miscegenation, and its twin conviction that America, overwhelmed by an influx of inferior others, was committing “race suicide.” Exactly because of Stella’s racially suicidal sexual enslavement to the Polak, her use of him as a stud animal, Belle Reve is lost to creditors. The power and pathos of Streetcar‘s final scene, as Blanche is packed off to an asylum, derive from the portrayal of tradition, refinement and ethnic superiority defeated by Bieganski.


The Deer Hunter

In 1978 director Michael Cimino broke new ground. He made the first serious, artistically ambitious, Hollywood movie to depict combat in Vietnam, The Deer Hunter (Kutler 61-74). In this historic film America’s involvement in Vietnam is understood not as the fruit of the machinations of wealthy and powerful Americans. It is not understood as the creation of men with names like “Kennedy,” “Johnson,” and “McNamara” who are divorced from the concerns of the blue-collar ethnics and other disproportionately poor and marginalized Americans and Third World peasants whose lives they destroy. Rather, the Vietnam War is depicted as the logical outcome of Bohunk culture. In this, The Deer Hunter gave artistic expression to a scholarly and popular press process that became noticeable in the sixties and seventies. Academic, press, and cultural elites came, inaccurately, to pin the social ills of racism and chauvinism on the stereotypically brutal and dumb blue-collar ethnic (Radzialowski 1976, 5; Novak 1975, 74; Hill 1975; Nie, et. al.1974; Hamilton 1972). It is ironic that imaginary Bohunks like Stanley Kowalski, so feared for the hunger that powerlessness brings, were now blamed for abuses of power that they never had.

The Deer Hunter won the Best Picture Oscar for 1978. In his New York Times review, Vincent Canby praised the film as, ” … a big, awkward, crazily ambitious, sometimes breathtaking motion picture … close to being a popular epic,” and, “its feeling for the time, place, and blue-collar people are genuine, and its vision is that of an original, major new filmmaker” (Canby 1978 a). In a later article, Canby wrote: “more honestly rueful, sad, provocative, and finally, frightening than any other movie we’ve had yet about Vietnam” (Canby 1978 b).

The Deer Hunter follows the fates of three friends from a tightly knit Lemko community as they work, love, and go to war. (Lemkos are a Slavic ethnic group who live in what is today Poland and Ukraine.) Work means steel; in the opening scenes the camera explores the almost unbearably bleak industrial face of a steel town, its smokestacks, monstrous, dehumanizing architecture, and soot. Men whose individuality is obscured by heavy protective gear do work that appears literally hellish: they manipulate rivers of molten steel. Later three buddies, clad in flannel shirts and long underwear, retreat to a locker room, where naked co-workers exhort them, “Kill a few for me, too,” and wish Steven good luck in his upcoming wedding. With this juxtaposition, the movie parallels Bohunk killing and Bohunk sex as manhood-proving rites. The men tell dirty jokes. “Did you hear about the happy Roman? He was glad he ate her,” wrestle, and then steer a white Cadillac through a game of chicken with an eighteen-wheeler. They drive to a dark bar where they play pool, watch football, gamble, and wear black leather. Cross-cut scenes introduce the town’s female element. A beautiful young blonde is being beaten and called a “fucking bitch” by her drunken, fat-gutted father, who is costumed in a stained T-shirt. An obese old woman, dressed all in black, including babushka, beats her son, complains in a Boris Badenoff accent that his bride-to-be is pregnant, and exhorts him to wear a scarf to his wedding, because it is cold. “You don’t wear a scarf with a tuxedo!” he is assimilated enough to tell her.

Cimino staged a stereotypical Bohunk wedding, at which the de rigueur dancing, drinking, fighting and rutting take place, with a few variations. Stan becomes jealous when a singer fondles his girl; Stan knocks her out, not him. Axle carries off a screaming, flailing, underwear flashing bridesmaid on his shoulders, shouting to her, “Do you want to fuck or fight?” Michael (Robert de Niro) reveals complete sexual inadequacy. He can’t even dance with the beautiful Linda (Meryl Streep) and ignores her into social embarrassment.

After the wedding and their display of their control of the female population, the men, eating Twinkies dipped in mustard, go hunting. A Slavic men’s chorus rings out on the soundtrack as the Bohunks track deer over difficult terrain. They return to the bar, deer over car, and celebrate. In the next scene, fire, smoke, and sparks reminiscent of the opening steel mill shots consume a Vietnamese village. The buddies are captured, imprisoned, and tortured. Thanks to Michael’s stoic courage, physical strength, and resolution, the men escape. The rest of the film veers back and forth between Vietnam and their mill town, and the characters’ struggle with their physical and emotional scars. In the final scene, the Bohunks comfort themselves and each other with food, alcohol, and by singing “God Bless America.”

The characters share Stanley Kowalski’s gender failure. “I get more pussy than a toilet seat,” this film’s Stanley announces. Michael, the hero, is not a sexual beast; he is all but a eunuch. He runs from every intimate encounter Linda initiates with him. He never initiates an encounter with a woman. When Linda finally pins him, he falters. Having rejected the Bieganski model offered by both cinematic Stanleys, he has no other role to assume. The Bieganski stereotype that allows him to be a hunter who can down deer with one shot, a soldier who can survive captivity and torture, cripples him in love. What Michael has gained in sympathy over Stanley Kowalski he must trade for sexual dysfunction.

No film of economic importance or artistic stature comparable to The Deer Hunter has ever focused on Bohunks with that film’s teasing tastes of verisimilitude. The Deer Hunter’s unique use of Bohunk cultural markers is combined with grotesque exaggeration that well represents stereotypes, but does not represent real people. Bohunks are not allowed either eyes or mouths in The Deer Hunter. If the film’s Bohunks were allowed the ability to see and to speak, that is, to comment on, yes, to implicate the elite culture doing the commenting on them, the fragile, stereotypical artistic underpinnings of The Deer Hunter would crumble. As it is, its characters, blinded and silenced, are impersonated from the outside in. Their shapes conform, not to the expressions of real people’s minds and souls, but to bigoted others’ stereotypes. The viewer can pity The Deer Hunter’s Bohunks, be disgusted or horrified by them, and can easily feel superior to them and blame them for disasters like Vietnam. Were these Bohunks allowed subjectivity, it would soon be revealed that they, no less than their ethnic and economic betters, are capable of producing individuals who can critique the elite machinations that lead to Vietnam in the first place. Indeed, a real life American of Slavic descent, Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic, presented America with one of its most important critiques of the war. Ironically, Kovic implicated Hollywood movies as a major reason that he volunteered to go to Vietnam.

Another problem is contextuality. Bohunk behaviors are not understood in context. The Bohunks carry and are expert in the use of weapons; the scene immediately preceding the first battle scene in Vietnam shows them celebrating, with some sentiment, a deer kill. One could draw the conclusion that Cimino is attempting to communicate that the unique macho of Bohunk culture combined with the brutality of American capitalism – symbolized by the smoke, sparks and fire of the mill, which are mirrored in the smoke, sparks and fire of the battle scene – have created a sub-human man who will go to war without conscience or thought. It is true that many Bohunk men, both in Europe and America, do hunt. The film does not explore the reasons for this. The Lemkos came from what was a scene of famine, where places have names like “The Valley of Hunger.” Men hunted in Europe to eat. Descendents of Bohunk immigrants today might remember grandfathers who were paid merely enough to feed themselves each day. If sick or injured, they could not work and received no salary. Hunting and foraging, where possible, were necessary to supplement diets. Other cultures, too, have their outlets for male predatory feelings. Oliver Stone’s northwestern European father was a Wall Street trader. Stone did not cross-cut scenes of aggressive takeovers with scenes of killing in his autobiographical Vietnam movie “Platoon,” however.

Slavic men’s choral singing rings on the soundtrack during hunting scenes. When Michael finally succumbs to Linda, and the two enjoy moments of awkward tenderness, instead of playing tender Slavic love songs, the soundtrack switches to American, mainstream guitar music. This music, which jars the ear after so much Bohunkiania, is only played during tender or thoughtful moments. To experience tenderness or thought, the film’s characters must depart from their culture, and become ethnically mainstream Americans.

No matter what shattering experiences the Bohunks of this film go through, Cimino refuses them sight or speech. The ethnically mainstream filmgoer, sharing Cimino’s assessment of Bohunks, will never learn the Bohunk assessment of anything, certainly not of him, the filmgoer. The filmgoer is thus protected from the kind of confrontations with self that make for great art. As Canby wrote, “The big answers elude [the film’s characters], as do the big questions” (Canby 1978 a). “The characters can express feelings only in second-rate sentiment” (Canby 1978 b). This is for the best, asserted Canby; this picture of Bohunks as incapable of sight or speech is part of the film’s laudable genuineness. The film is “at its worst”, he insisted, when it attributes any kind of insight to its characters at all (Canby 1978, c).

Cinematic successes have been made that portray low class Slavic peasants wearing T-shirts, engaging in fisticuffs, etc. Three classics of world cinema serve as examples: the 1965 Czechoslovak film, The Shop on Main Street, Andrzej Wajda’s 1972 The Wedding and his 1977 Man of Marble, both made in Poland. The heroes of these films have, superficially, much in common with the Bohunks in American cinema. They wear T-shirts, do manual labor, engage in fisticuffs, and fail at life. The Wedding portrays a rambunctious event that would make Cimino’s fantasy wedding pale by comparison. As in The Deer Hunter, characters in these movies become the pawns of historic forces far beyond them: Nazism, Stalinism, and colonization. But these characters’ creators are not expressing an anti-Bohunk stereotype, and, thus, are not threatened by their characters’ subjectivity. T-shirted failures in these films are allowed to see Nazism, Stalinism, and colonization, to see their own puny place in history, and comment on it. Thus, these films are less about stereotypes meant to comfort an elite into believing that it is not responsible for racism, chauvinism or the Vietnam War. These films, rather, create complex portraits of three-dimensional human beings with whom the viewer can identify, no matter how alien their experience, rather than caricatures the viewer automatically feels superior to. The art of these films forces viewers to confront the place of man – any man, of any ethnicity – in the face of oppressive, overwhelming historical tides.

Ironically, Canby, who insisted on wrongly identifying the characters in The Deer Hunter as “Russian,” once praised The Deer Hunter‘s genuineness in an article about artistic truth. Cultural arbiter Canby argued forcefully for his own disregard of poetic truth in movies about cultures he doesn’t care about. Canby then insisted that he could not accept the artistic merits of a movie that flubbed details of the tensions between old and new money, tensions with which he is familiar (Canby 1978, b). In a further irony, The Deer Hunter has been criticized by many as “racist.” One viewer protested, “The movie is ‘a lie’ in which all the non-Americans are ‘sweaty, crazy, vicious, and debauched.'” The protesters were not concerned with the film’s portrayal of Bohunks, but of Asians (Harmentz 1979; see also Kutler 1996, 61-74).

One mainstream author rooted in working class and Bohunk life has voiced his objections to The Deer Hunter. In 1999, Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Studs Terkel wrote:

I’ve attended a number of such weddings and the parties that followed – Russian Orthodox, Lithuanian, Ukrainian, Polish, Croat, Serb – but I have yet to attend a wedding as dull, one-dimensional, and interminable as this one. I have seen drunken brawls. I have heard words passed. But mostly I have observed the dignity that hard-working people have on occasions of this sort. At such times, encouraged by a drink or two, they talk of their lives; they reveal themselves, their hidden hurts and inchoate hopes as they rarely do in their workaday existence. Here [in Deer Hunter] we have the drunks without the revelation. For almost an hour, we stare fixedly at a banal wedding portrait. It is as though National Geographic were offering a portrait of the Watusi people. All detail, no insight. (Terkel 120-125)


The Fugitive

The Fugitive was that rare thing: a movie that dominated the year’s box office receipts as wells as critics’ praise. Janet Maslin’s review is an atypical, for the Times, cascade of superlatives. “A smashing success,” she stated. “A juggernaut of an action-adventure saga … directed sensationally,” the principals act with “steely perfection” the supporting cast is “flawless”; the screenplay is “clever, inventive”; in fact “every element conspires to sustain crisp intelligence and a relentless pace.” “To put it simply, this is a home run” (Maslin).

The movie consists of one long chase. A highly successful surgeon falsely accused of killing his wife runs from the law while trying to find the real killer. This contrived story gains force from the nightmarish fear that one wrong move could result in a man’s losing his family, home, status, income; and the character-testing question: could a man who was at the top triumph if thrust to the bottom? The film chronicles Dr. Kimble’s (Harrison Ford) desperate plummet from a man who had everything to an escaped convict who must function in a world he was probably never exposed to before: prison, cheap basement apartments, mean streets.

Once convicted, Kimble shares space with African American prisoners, but they are intelligent and dignified. One could conclude that they are prisoners because of racial injustice rather than because of any crimes they may have committed. Further, the crack law-enforcement team chasing Dr. Kimble, headed up by Tommy Lee Jones, is integrated. Jones’ character, Sam Gerard, is a WASP male, of course, but he leads a politically correct team. Gerard has a Jew and a very competent African American woman working for him. Will political correctness result in a vitiated film? No. The obvious choice is to exploit an ethnicity that is coded low class, and that is fair game. The film plays the Bieganski card.

The Poles in this film are onscreen very briefly; the very brevity of their appearance, combined with the certainty of their ethnicity and their function, indicates how very strong the stereotype is. Kimble was formerly shown in a tuxedo, rubbing elbows with the svelte and glamorous. Running from the law, he must vacate his airy, enviable high-rent apartment and enter the world of dreary basement rooms. (Dundes quotes a joke associating the impoverished Polaks with basement apartments. “Why is the Polish suicide rate so low? Did you ever try jumping out of a basement window?” Dundes, “Study” 200). The viewer is given an idea of the gravity of Kimble’s situation: his landlady is Polish. She speaks Polish repeatedly; a shoddy knock-off of Poland’s revered Black Madonna hangs over Kimble’s rented bed. The landlady herself conforms to the dictates of stereotypical Bohunk gender failure: she is ugly and expressionless, except for a vague, stupid hostility; her body is block-like. In case the viewer has missed how grim and low this state of affairs is for the hero, police raid the residence. An affirmative action team of cops, including an African American man, arrest the landlady’s fat, balding, ugly son for “Stringing out twelve year old girls.” The African American cop leads the Polak prisoner away. In the police station the ugly Polak criminal, apparently bought out by the treats he is stuffing into his mouth, betrays Kimble’s location. As with his mother, no thought or emotion flickers on his balloon-like face. “Relax,” this scene reassures mainstream America. “Yes, African Americans will advance, but they won’t advance at your expense. A WASP male still leads the team. As a bonus, you, the viewer, can feel righteous watching an African American cop leading away a white bad guy. You can feel safe as well as righteous, because the bad guy isn’t really white like you. He’s a Polak. Yes there are bad, ugly, distasteful ethnic others in this world, people so perversely, stupidly hostile and possessed of such bad taste that they deserve our fear, disgust, and the rough treatment of our police. We can use them as shorthand for danger, perverse hostility, crime and ugliness in our art. The Bieganskis.”


The Apartment

The Apartment is treated out of chronological order because it represents a significant departure from the norm in its treatment of Bohunks. The Apartment won the best picture Oscar of 1960; Oscars also went to Billy Wilder for his direction and Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond for their screenplay. Bosley Crowther called it a ” … gleeful, tender, and even sentimental film,” and praised its “ingenious” direction, “splendid” performances, and “action and dialogue tumbling with wit” (Crowther 1960). The New York Times named it one of the year’s top ten.

The Apartment opens with a crisp aerial view of Manhattan’s skyscrapers. In a voice-over, Jack Lemmon, as the movie’s hero, C. C. Baxter, recites statistics: if all the citizens of New York were laid end to end they would reach Karachi. The narrator knows things like this because he crunches numbers for an insurance company. The camera cuts to Baxter’s desk, one of hundreds in a starkly lit office, beehive-like in its uniformity and buzz. We soon discover what sets Baxter apart in this dizzying series of images of an imperial, dehumanizing, gray flannel America: he allows higher-ups to conduct illicit sexual liaisons in his one-bedroom bachelor apartment. This boy is going places.

In exchange for his compliance, Baxter’s superiors put in a good word for him with the powerful Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray). Sheldrake, when promoting Baxter, puts an end to the other men’s shenanigans, only to reserve Baxter’s apartment for his affair with Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine; “Kubelik” is a Czech name) an elevator operator. A series of alternately melancholy, comic, and near tragic scenes follow, centering on Baxter’s brokering of his apartment for professional advancement, and the erosive effect this has on his humanity. Fran, depressed by her affair with Sheldrake, attempts suicide in the apartment; Baxter nurses her. A neighbor, Dr. Dreyfus, helps Baxter rescue Fran. Cabby Karl Matushka, Fran’s brother-in-law, arrives to punch Baxter out. Eventually Fran and Baxter come to understand that they love each other, and unite, happily, leaving Sheldrake and the rat race behind them.

Fran Kubelik and Karl Matushka bear certain superficial similarities to the Bohunks described so far. They do blue-collar work; they abjure socially coded displays meant to impress as intelligence. Their physicality, in the form of Fran’s sexual surrender and Matushka’s violence, is essential to their characters. There is a world of difference, though, between the Bohunks of The Apartment and of the three previously discussed films.

Many Bohunks did work with their bodies, live in poverty, lack education, and sense that they were different and despised. That sense contributed to a discomfort that outsiders often read as irrational hostility or anti-cultural clannishness (Novak Guns xv, xvi). As we have seen, writers, producers and directors may, in getting these surface ethnographic details right, get the inner men and women wrong. Fran Kubelik and Karl Matushka, however, communicate to the attentive viewer that the circumstances of their lives do not define them, and that their manifest traits are their best option for dealing with the world as it has been presented to them, rather than evidence of inferior blood. Further, Fran, Matushka, and the Jewish Doctor Dreyfus are allowed eyes and mouths. They are allowed subjectivity. They are allowed to see and comment on the others who see and comment on them; they are allowed to implicate those they see and those who see them. Thus, they are as human as the viewer; it is possible to identify with them. Matushka, Fran and Dr. Dreyfus are allowed to present the very qualities Baxter’s slice of America needs to save its own soul.

Fran disparages her own intelligence. She announces that she wanted to be a typist, but, “I flunked the typing test. I can’t spell.” Fran, though, is not as dumb as she protests, and one suspects that she is presenting the face that she needs to in order to survive her fate. In working her miserable job she shows a graciousness and dignity the white-collar workers lack; Baxter crosses hierarchical lines in order to point this out to her. While dealing with the wandering hands of executive Mr. Kirkibee in no uncertain terms, Fran brandishes a rapier wit that defuses what might otherwise be a precarious situation for a woman in her relatively powerless position. She identifies herself as a “happy idiot” to Sheldrake during a painful moment, communicating that she knows more about what’s really going on than he does, but that she is powerless to make Sheldrake, the powerful one, understand; therefore, it is to her temporary strategic advantage to play the role assigned her. When she has finally gained the insight she needs to break free from Sheldrake’s power, she tells him, “I’d spell it out for you, only I can’t spell.” With this sentence she rejects the cold profit-and-loss logic of Sheldrake’s world and acknowledges the superiority of her kind of Bohunk logic, in which an unemployed shnook like Baxter is a better match for her than a wealthy and newly divorced executive like Sheldrake.

Matushka advertises his low intellectual status through his job: cabby, and his non-standard speech: “My sister-in-law she runs”, and, “on account of”, flat vowels and dropping of “R’s.” Matushka’s broad shoulders, athletic stance, and slight stoop offer an obvious visual contrast when he enters a glass-walled office of unmuscled, suited executives. He wears a hip-length leather jacket and leather gloves; other than his rugged, angry face, no humanizing flesh is revealed. That Matushka’s personality is no one-dimensional stereotype, but that it is Slavic, multi-layered, potentially confusing to Westerners, and possessed of gender-crossing maternal, as well as stereotypically macho qualities, is hinted at in his last name. “Matushka,” or “little mother” is of course, one name of the traditional Russian doll, aka “matryoshka,” that stacks one within the other. In any case, Baxter’s fellow executives immediately size Matushka up as a threat and sic him on Baxter to avenge Baxter’s revoking of their apartment privileges.

When he arrives at the apartment, Matushka’s mere presence agitates Baxter into a comic tailspin of faux macho, expressed in the only form available to him: self-incriminatory verbosity. He, in shirt and tie, prattles on and on, while Matushka glares at him, arms crossed, silent, his sheer physicality statement enough. When he doesn’t like what he thinks he sees, Matushka punches Baxter to the ground. As he watches Baxter silently, menacingly, he radiates the presence not of a man who can’t speak, but who disdains the feeble verbal efforts at self-aggrandizement and female-disparaging male bonding that Baxter produces as if they were Madison Avenue jingles. Matushka looks like a working man who’s been lied to before, who knows when he’s being lied to, and who will use what power he has, his body, to articulately and efficiently say what needs to be said when he needs to say it. His aware and communicative silence, apparently, says much to the better-educated, white-collar Baxter; it is what drives Baxter into his verbal tailspin. Unlike Stanley Kowalski, who affects elite speech when trying to coax ownership of Belle Reve, Matushka is too intelligent, dignified and self-satisfied to ape the vocabulary of another class. Rather, Matushka’s very silence and physicality present the world through his eyes, and his class superiors as they look to him – that is, inferior.

The sexual exploitation of Fran’s working class, Bohunk body by an upper class WASP, and her own self-deprecation of her mind, could render a woman who is only her physicality. We are told in so many words, however, that Fran is the decent one. While higher ups carouse at a Christmas party, Fran is shown sober, dignified, and apart. Fran resists the rush and anonymity of elevator traffic to take note of Baxter’s elevator courtesies. She gives him a flower for his lapel on an important day; she gently requests that Baxter not speak indiscreetly of her to other men in the office. Fran’s body is sturdy like Stanley Kowalski’s and other Bohunks: “I never catch colds.” But she is self-aware and witty about this: “If the average New Yorker catches two and a half colds a year and I don’t catch any, some poor slob is getting five!” Her genuine love for Sheldrake, combined with the disempowered’s wistful, wishful ability to see the reality she needs rather than the harsh, hopeless truth that confronts her, are what make the affair possible for her. Even so, she is never seen unclothed while with her married lover; she never kisses or embraces him; she attempts to end the affair and only continues because of his calculated seduction. Like Baxter, she temporarily trades the commodity over which she has power to a cold, powerful WASP’s empty promises. Fran feels deep grief and disgust when her fantasy weakens and reality becomes evident. She persists in using a mirror broken during a fight with Sheldrake. “It makes me look the way I feel.”

Even Fran and Matushka’s relative poverty are positively valued. Baxter moves and lives in a frigid, amoral vacuum, where he can do what he wants because nobody cares. The poorer Fran, by contrast, must live in the same domestic arrangement as Blanche du Bois: with her sister and brother-in-law. This domestic setting is not a prelude to degradation and rape but to caring and protection of honor. Matushka goes to Fran’s workplace to check on her when she doesn’t come home; he travels to Baxter’s apartment, collects her, and punishes the man whom he believes hurt her.

In fact, it is Baxter’s world, a WASP one of hypocrisy, anomie, and pointless dog-eat-dog competition, which must change. It is in the eyes of Bohunks and Jews that Baxter is informed that there is something wrong with his life. Protesting suspicious goings on in Baxter’s apartment, Jewish neighbor Dr. Dreyfus warns Baxter that he won’t live long, and exhorts him to become a “mensch.” (The uncommon name “Dreyfus,” of course, because of the historical Alfred Dreyfus, will always be associated with the outraged society-correcting cry, “I accuse!”) In Fran’s broken mirror, Baxter sees the painful ridiculousness of his splintered reflection, as he models his newly-purchased bowler, the power hat he had bought to celebrate his hard-earned promotion. It is at that moment that he confronts the compromises he and others make to achieve “success.” Baxter’s moment of truth, when he finally takes a stand for himself and for what he is discovering he believes, is made clear by Fran’s irrational Bohunk sentiment and inspired by love for Fran. For the first time in nearly two hours of acting like a compromised doormat, Baxter says a firm “No” to a demand for his apartment. He takes this stand because he knows that Sheldrake wants to bring Fran there. When Sheldrake threatens to fire him for this, Baxter says, “I’m just following Doctor’s orders. I’ve decided to become a mensch. The old payola won’t work anymore.” The necessary ingredients for Baxter’s redemption, and, by extension, his glass-and-steel America, are Ashkenazi philosophy and Bohunk love. In a baton-passing gesture, Baxter pauses in his escape to place his power hat atop the head of an African American janitor.

This is a complex and sympathetic portrayal of Bohunks; how did it come about? Billy Wilder was a Jew from Sucha, Poland. Fran Kubelik’s cinematic older sister is Sugar Kowalczyk, the sweet, sexy, conniving but self-advertised dumb blonde played by Marilyn Monroe in Wilder’s 1959 hit, “Some Like it Hot.” Wilder’s depiction of loving Bohunk women brings to mind Noble Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer, through whose works parade a series of such Bohunk heroines: Wanda in The Slave, Jadwiga in Enemies, a Love Story, and Tekla, in Shosha of whom Singer wrote:

These are the real people, the ones who keep the world going, I thought. They serve as proof that the cabalists are right … An indifferent God, a mad God, couldn’t have created Tekla … .Her cheeks were the color of ripe apples. She gave forth a vigor rooted in the earth, in the sun, in the whole universe. She didn’t want to better the world as did Dora; she didn’t require roles and reviews as did Betty; she didn’t seek thrills as did Celia. She wanted to give, not take. If the Polish people had produced even one Tekla, they had surely accomplished their mission. (Singer 1982, 325)


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An earlier version of this chapter was published in The Journal of Popular Culture, Volume 39, edited by Gary C. Hoppenstand and published by John Wiley and Sons, 2006.

A review by Editor Stuart Vail:

As with most kids that I knew in Grade School in 1950’s New Mexico, the first awareness of anything Polish was the Polak joke. To me, a Polak was some distant, undefinable, stupid ethnic group that, initially, I didn’t even associate with Poland. I didn’t even know where Poland was. We also recited the very un-PC version of “Eenie, meenie, mynee, mo,” but after awhile, as my consciousness expanded and I learned who Poles really were, I disliked the jokes and the stereotyping. My Finnish grandfather used to call me a “stupid Svede” whenever I accidently spilled or broke something, and he used to tell Swedish jokes that I recognized as the old Polak jokes I used to tell. Same tired old jokes, different ethnic group.

I realized that every culture probably has its “Polak,” someone lower than them, someone to be the butt of their jokes. I wrote about this to the author and then asked her, “Who are Poland’s ‘Polaks’?” And she responded, “There is no one lower than a Pole.”

Chilling words for me to hear, but it wasn’t until I read this fine book that I fully realized their full import. Goska cites poet John Guzlowski and his parents living in a D.P. camp (for Displaced Persons) after WWII, coming to America as a D.P., and growing up with that stigma… how it affected his entire life. She cites example after example of Poles whose entire existence has been under the boot of ostracism.

Throughout my life I’ve had many Jewish and Polish friends, but not a single one of them gave me any hint of animosity toward any ethnic group. Perhaps it’s because I’m a musician, as are most of my friends, and we just don’t harbor that sort of attitude. Maybe the bandstand is the true melting pot, the gathering of equals, where one’s musicianship is the only thing being judged. Color and ethnicity don’t exist. So, it was a revelation for me to learn of Polish anti-Semitism and the degree to which some Jews hate Poles. It was heartbreaking to hear of how, in the eyes of many, the identity of an entire country can be reduced to having hosted Nazi death camps.

For me, however, the best part of the book is Goska’s analysis of the bohunk role in the films “A Street Car Named Desire,” “The Deerhunter,” “The Fugitive,” and “The Apartment” — the first of which is nothing short of brilliant. For anyone who has seen the film, this essay reveals incredible insights into Tennessee Williams’ wonderful screenplay.

“Bieganski” is a book I highly recommend.

Author Danusha Goska is a prolific writer of considerable talent, whose work has appeared in TheScreamOnline many times over the years. Unfortunately, the book is out of print and it can be hard to find. For a more affordable purchase option, contact the author through the Contact link at the top of the page.